Today is the 165th anniversary of the birth of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who was one of the most popular American writers of his time. In an essay for the October issue of Urban Times, IUP author Norbert Krapf shows how Riley's work still influences contemporary poets today. Krapf's essay appears on our blog courtesy of the author and Urban Times.
As the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home in Lockerbie Square begins using its new Visitors Center, this is a good time to consider the company the once-popular poet keeps today. Some examples may be surprising, some not. In our day Riley has been dismissed by critics as a “sentimental” poet, a charge that has valildity, but there may be virtues his detractors miss.
My mother, Dorothy Schmitt Krapf, a Riley enthusiast, was born in 1913 on a farm west of my hometown, Jasper. She was one of six children. Her father died when she was six and the eldest, my godfather, Alfred, was 12. I did not know that my mother was such a friend of poetry, until she told me in her 80s that she loved Tennyson, showed me a copy of a collection of his work she had kept concealed, and told me a story.
When she was a girl, Dorothy fell in love with Riley’s poetry and her approving teacher loaned her a Riley collection. The farm girl worked hard to finish her chores quickly so she would have time to read. Her big sister, Frieda, would show no mercy if she found little sis reading during the work day, so “Dots” fooled big sis by climbing into the branches of a sugar maple in front of the farmhouse to read the dialect poems of Riley. I tell this story in more detail in my own poem, A Hoosier Poetry Reading, included in Bloodroot: Indiana Poems.
It is not surprising that an Indiana farm girl born early in the 20th century would love the work of a poet who wrote in dialect about the fading rural life she knew. It may surprise us, however, that Charles Bernstein—a poet born 1950 in New York City who has spent much of his life teaching literature at the University at Buffalo/The State University of New York and the University of Pennyslvania—is a Riley enthusiast. A founding leader of the Language Poets, who stress the collaboration between poet and reader in the creation of meaning, Bernstein appreciates Riley’s recreation of dialect in poetry as a way of connecting with his audience.
Jim Powell, the co-founder and director for 20 years of the Indiana Writers Center, heard Riley’s poetry sitting on his grandmother’s knees. When he brought Bernstein to Indianapolis to read, the Language Poet and poetics expert showed a familiarity with Riley’s dialect poetry and expressed appreciation of it. Bernstein imagines “poetry as a series of terraces...overlooking the city of language.” We might envision this urban avant-garde poet approving Riley’s rural, retro dialect experiments taking place beyond city terraces out in the provinces of language.
While writing on Long Island, N.Y., for 34 years about my Indiana rural small-town background, I periodically revisited Riley’s dialect poems. I was drawn to the familiar world of the poems, but not their sentimentality. After moving to Indy in 2004, not far from the Riley Museum Home, I kept returning to his work, wondering why it pulled me back.
In 2008, after I became Indiana Poet Laureate, Diane Timmerman, chair of the Butler Theater Dept., invited me to read my God’s Country, about southern Indiana, in a program that combined poetry, music and dance at the new Central Library as part of the Spirit and Place Festival. Michael Atwood, host for the former PBS weekly show, Across Indiana, read a Riley poem that I did not know, An Order for a Song, that knocked me out. No dialect. Rhyme, yes, but no nostalgia for rural life. The speaker asks for a song “full of murmurings, including “merry voices” remembered, but he also highlights the dark underpinnings of life:
But make it tender, for the sake
Of hearts that brood and tears that break,
And tune it with the harmony,
The sighs of sorrow make.
This dark undercurrent, present in other Riley poems not in dialect, stays with me.
Literary influences are often more indirect than scholars would have us believe. During the first few years after my return to Indiana, when I was rereading Riley, I was brooding on a darkness I had not written about, being the survivor of clergy abuse as a child. In 2007, some 325 poems erupted, out of which I eventually carved the 130 that became Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing.
These poems came in four voices—the boy I was, the man I became, the priest, and Mr. Blues, a mentor and healer whose lines, rhymed in the classic blues format, are in the blues idiom. I fell in love with the rural blues in the 1960s at Notre Dame during graduate school, have listened to the Delta masters for almost 50 years, and suspect that Riley’s use of dialect from the country helped me transition into the rural voice and idiom of Mr. Blues.
Another contemporary poet is the most-long distance and surprising Riley enthusiast. Lisa Hoie Zaran was born in 1969 in Los Angeles. When her parents divorced, her mother moved their children to Phoenix. Lisa, a blues lover, has made a name for herself not only as a fine poet but as editor of an online poetry magazine, Contemporary American Voices. I came into contact with her when she invited me to submit some poems, published five of them, and in correspondence revealed herself as a fan of unlikely bedfellows, James Whitcomb Riley and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, about whom she was publishing online a series of prose poems Letters to Bob Dylan.
In 2007 Lisa came to Indianapolis with her sister, Victoria, a Colts fan, for a Bob Dylan concert. My wife and I showed them around the Downtown and, before walking with them to the concert at White River Park, brought them to the nearby Riley home.
How did Lisa, an Arizona poet with a very contemporary style and author of a powerful, grief-stricken but hopeful volume about her son’s heroin addiction, If It We, one of the best poetry volumes I have read in years, become enamored of Indiana’s once-popular dialect poet? After the move to Phoenix, Lisa’s mother purchased a hardcover copy of Riley’s Love Lyrics. Lisa, an early teen, was taken by the poem He’s Just Away, which reminded her of her father. She would “sit in [her] bedroom as a young teenager and cry over [Riley’s] words.”
After we went through the Riley Home, slowly, Lisa strolled to a Riley bust outside on the lawn, put her arms around the image of the poet, and the tall, attractive Norwegian-American blond poet planted a kiss on his cheek. Literary approval of supposedly passé poets comes in many shapes and forms.
Norbert Krapf, Indiana Poet Laureate (2008-2010), is Emeritus Professor of English at Long Island University. He is author of three IUP books, including Invisible Presence, Bloodroot, and Songs in Sepia and Black and White. Later this month, he will be presented with the 2014 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award (regional category).